Universalist Rhetoric and American Foreign Policy

Often within American politics, those who are seen as too radical, and in particular, left leaning are seen as, and referred to as “un-American.” This statement suggests a form of particularism in which those who live in America, must adopt American political views and act in American ways, whatever that means. Furthermore, this particularism is not confined to the right, although the right is more prevalent in its appeal to it. We can see that this particularism is not confined to the political right by the way in which Snowden has been painted by the Obama regime (a regime of the mainstream left in America) as a traitorous un-American criminal. Yet, somewhat unexpectedly, especially in the area of foreign policy, rhetoric in American politics, is avowedly universalistic. Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama all have appealed to universalistic notions such as freedom, democracy and a defense of human rights as the foundation of their foreign policy. In relation to this I will suggest that there is one strain of political rhetoric in American foreign policy which disguises the particularism of American political speech under the cover of universalism. Furthermore, I will argue that the use of this form of speech that disguises American particularism as universalism is deeply problematic, because it is deceptive and makes it difficult to take the use of ethical notions seriously within the realm of international politics.

When examining American rhetoric with regard to foreign policy over the last ten years, one is apt to see many appeals to freedom and democracy as the aim of American foreign policy. However, it is interesting to note that even though the rhetoric appeals to “freedom” or “democracy” in general, it is quite clear from the actions that the US has taken that what is being pursued is not freedom or democracy simpliciter, but rather the interpretations of freedom and democracy that undergird American culture and politics. This can be seen by the fact that during in the reconstruction of governments in both Afghanistan and Iraq the aim has been to create a liberal capitalist democracy, with traditional party based representative institutions rather than developing a form of democracy that is sustainable within the country given the history and divisions that were present within the country. This is not to suggest some crass thesis that suggests that developing countries are not capable of liberal democracy, but rather to express the more basic political truth that in order for political institutions to be sustainable they must be acceptable to all significant populations within the state, and it is not clear that American style liberal capitalist democracy meets this condition. Similarly, the way in which the US only supports the particular American interpretation of freedom and democracy within the international realm can be seen in the support that the US has put forth for the coup against the Morsi government in Egypt; Morsi was democratically elected, but he threatened to turn Egypt into an illiberal democracy, and so America could not support him, as the democracy he wanted was not the universal democracy that the US stood for. Democracy is sacrosanct in American foreign policy as long as those who are elected adopt the right policies; this can also be seen in the attitude and policies that the US had towards Hugo Chavez. Consequently, there is certainly a strain of political rhetoric in America that tries to pass off a defense of values related directly to American political institutions and culture with a general defense of democracy and freedom simpliciter.

It might be said that the thought process above really just shows that the US is committed to supporting universal values like democracy and freedom, because while there are other interpretations of these terms, the interpretations that the US takes are the correct interpretations of these values, while other interpretations are flawed.

In response to this I would say that there are some interpretations of freedom and democracy that constitute Orwellian doublespeak such as the idea that North Korea is a democracy, but it seems to me that there are a whole host of institutional interpretations of democracy and freedom that stand apart from the American interpretation of these terms that have legitimacy. Here, we have to be careful of identifying a particular good, with a particular set of institutions. Multiparty systems with representative institutions have worked reasonably effectively in supporting democracy, but this does not mean that other institutional embodiments of democracy whether they involve allotment, representation by stakeholder/ethnic group or direct democracy are necessarily not in keeping with the general spirit of democracy, that the government is run by the citizenry and in their interest. Consequently, we have little reason to think that the interpretations of democracy and freedom that undergird American politics and culture are the correct interpretations while others are simply illegitimate.

The fact that the US speaks as if it defends democracy and freedom simpliciter, while only supporting the very particular version of these values that undergirds their politics and culture is problematic. It is so because speaking in this way constitutes a form of deceptive rhetoric which passes off the attempt to try to ensure that other nations have similar institutions to the US as a humane defense of something that everyone can reasonably accept (democracy and freedom). This form of rhetoric is quite clearly deceptive, but it is deceptive in a particularly problematic way as it reduces the currency of ethical notions within the realm of international politics. When the US uses terms like freedom and democracy as a cover for the pursuit of other objectives, like ensuring nations adopt similar institutions to the US, it reinforces the idea that talk that involves ethical notions is just a mode of persuasion that is used as a cover to pursue other objectives. This makes it far more difficult to take seriously the use of ethical notions in the international realm, as it seems that whenever people use these terms they are merely using them as a cover or a tool to support other interests. It should be noted that the US is not the only nation that does this, in fact many nations take a similar path in using ethical notions as a cover to pursue brute self-interest, but I wanted to shed light on the American example because of the large role that they play in the international realm.


What does “liberalism” mean?

The word “liberalism” is a key concept both within the political vernacular of post-industrial societies as well as within the academy. But this word does not seem to have a fixed, singular meaning, rather different groups seem to use this term to refer to entirely different social phenomena and theoretical justifications. In this entry I would like to unpack some of the different ways in which the term “liberal” and “liberalism” is used and show that we ought to explain what we mean by this term when using it in conversation with others because it seems to refer to a disparate set of phenomena and ideas.

In everyday use in North America the term liberal refers to someone who is on the left side of the political spectrum. In this sense the word liberal denotes a broad acceptance of, and enthusiasm for a welfare state that will ensure the equality, and freedom of all, as well as a broad acceptance of difference. Liberalism, in this sense, let’s call it Sense 1 Liberalism, is defined in opposition to conservatism which is understood in terms of adherence to free enterprise, and a general uneasiness with the recognition of difference, whether cultural, racial or sexual. Within everyday political discourse when someone says liberal this is typically what they mean, however there are many other uses of the terms liberal, and liberalism, which display very different meanings.

Another sense of the term “liberalism” is that which refers to an approach to political economy which emphasizes the efficiency of markets and their self-regulating nature as well as the fact that the state should be as minimal as possible as is consistent with ensuring a large degree of economic growth. This is often referred to as neoliberalism; the rationale behind calling this orientation towards the economy neoliberalism is that it is return to the 19th century liberalism of laissez faire capitalism. But for our purposes let us call this Sense 2 Liberalism, as people will still often refer to liberal economics or liberalism to refer to this doctrine that emphasizes the primacy of markets.

One other way in which the term liberalism is used is particularly predominant in the academy among critical theorists (Marxists, Radical Feminists etc) and some Communitarians. In this context liberalism is a pejorative used to describe a mixture of political, cultural and economic attitudes within liberal democratic societies. This term does not describe any particular theory, but the status quo within liberal societies such as Canada, the United States, and many countries within Western Europe among others. Let us call this Sense 3 Liberalism.

One final way in which liberalism is used is common within the Anglo-American academy, especially among Political Philosophers and Political Theorists. This sense of liberalism posits that liberalism is a family of political philosophies that emphasizes that the point of the state is to ensure the equal freedom of all individuals under it. There are of course differing variants of liberalism in this sense that range between more market capitalist oriented interpretations and more egalitarian interpretations that accept as much state intervention in the economy as most socialists would. Furthermore, some variants emphasize that ensuring equal freedom is necessary to support an autonomous life, while others suppose that ensuring equal freedom is not necessary to another end, but something that is required to treat a person with respect, but they all share this broad commitment to equal freedom of the individual. Let us call this Sense 4 Liberalism. The philosophies of Locke, Mill, Rawls, Dworkin and Waldron would all be examples of Sense 4 Liberalism.

Now we can see that all of these meanings of liberalism share some commonalities, in that they all have something to do with freedom and the individual, but beyond that there is not much that unites them at the level of meaning. For example, I would say that I am a supporter of Sense 4 Liberalism, while I am not a supporter of Sense 2 or Sense 3 Liberalism. The fact that I think that the state should ensure that all those who live under it are accorded equal freedom, need not mean that I support the current state of culture, politics, and economics within liberal democratic societies. Societies that are based on principles that correspond to Sense 4 Liberalism do tend to have vices similar to those of Sense 3 Liberalism, but this does not mean that supporters of Sense 4 Liberalism need to support these vices.

The trouble is that often people use one sense of the term liberalism, without explaining what the term means, to either support or critique liberalism. When this occurs the others listening to this person will often be confused because if the person is critiquing Sense 3 Liberalism, and say liberalism necessary leads to a shallow society, and their interlocutor thinks of liberalism in terms of Sense 1 Liberalism then they will be puzzled and confused by the critics comments. Furthermore, if they are a supporter of Sense 4 Liberalism they may get very defensive because this person is suggesting that a mere commitment to the notion that ensuring equal freedom is the fundamental aim of the state means that one is also encouraging the creation of a shallow society. Consequently, using the term liberalism without explanation of what one means is a strategy that tends to lead to confusion. It should be noted that each of these senses of the term liberalism flourishes in differing set of topical spaces, but these spaces often overlap such that if the exclusive user of Sense 2 Liberalism is encountered by exclusive users of Sense 4 Liberalism and neither party is willing to explain what they mean by liberalism than confusion, will ultimately arise. Consequently, we should be very careful when using the term liberalism to explain what we mean, so that they we don’t confuse our interlocutors.

Yet a further difficulty occurs in that liberalism is a word that typically attracts either feelings of condemnation or praise. Whatever sense of the word liberalism is dominant in someone’s lexicon, they ordinarily have strong thoughts about it. Thus, the term liberalism tends to be used less as a device to explain one’s position, than as a rhetorical device that signifies either pure goodness or wretchedness. For example, many critical theorists use liberal or liberalism as a synonym for bad (the badness of late capitalist society). While many market liberals use liberalism as a synonym for goodness (the goodness of the market). Thus, it seems that in the context of the use of the word liberalism at the very least Alasdair MacIntyre is right to suggest that in the modern world concepts that seem to have a distinct meaning are used more to express approval and disapproval than to actually convey a coherent position about the nature of the right or the good. Clearly, it would be problematic for rational ethical/political dialogue if all that we were doing through it was expressing approval or disapproval without conveying a substantive coherent position about the good, but if we continue to use the term liberalism as it is being used then at least in the case of liberalism we would not actually be engaging in a rational exchange about the nature of the good, rather we would be trying to bludgeon one another with our approval or disapproval of an abstraction.

Given the dilemma sketched above, we have to ensure that when engaging in ethical or political dialogue with others we use terms like liberal, that at once refer to disparate phenomena, but also are subjects of condemnation or praise, in a way that recognizes that the other may not just disagree with us about whether the term deserves praise or condemnation, but rather may mean something entirely different by the term. This will require us to avoid using the term as a merely polemical device, and rather require us to explain what it is we are supporting and condemning. In the abstract this may seem like an obvious requirement of rational dialogue, but the dialogue in our society suggests that then we are confronted with opponents we rarely engage in dialogue in this way. Consequently, when engaging dialogue we need to think about what we are doing, and be sure that we are taking the steps necessary to help the other understand our position, rather than merely beat them.

Prostitution, Puritanism, Commodification and Wage Labour

A little while ago the Supreme Court of Canada struck down Canada’s anti-prostitution laws as unconstitutional. While this act by the Supreme Court never suggested that prostitution should be legal, it did argue that Canada’s current laws needed to be replaced as the current laws endangered the health and safety of sex trade workers. As a result of this the whole issue of prostitution’s status under the law has become a topic for public discussion.

The interesting element of these discussions of prostitution is the earnest piety with which both left leaning and right leaning politicians condemn prostitution as necessarily exploitative and immoral. I have a lot of sympathy with the argument that currently sex trade workers are exploited, victims of violence and subject to being connected with human trafficking, and I am not sure if the connection between these criminal activities and prostitution can easily be cut. But, the fact that currently sex trade workers tend to be subject to these dangers, does not necessarily show that prostitution is exploitative, but only that prostitution is exploitative under the particular conditions under which it exists within the contemporary Canadian context. And yet the partisans of both left and right seem to act as if the current state of prostitution in Canada means that sex trade work is necessarily exploitative and needs to be condemned by means of law. There are of course some contrasting voices that want to reform the sex trade industry such that it becomes a legitimate form of economic activity, but these are a very small minority. Thus, the Canadian public discussion of this issue is dominated by a very broad condemnation of prostitution.

I suspect that this condemnation of prostitution is due to the idea that there is something particularly degrading about prostitution such that even under the most perfect egalitarian conditions engaging in prostitution would be a sign that someone was mentally ill or depraved. This idea is rarely expressed clearly, but it seems to fit with the fact that we are the heirs to a tradition of thought and practise in which sexual purity was a central element of morality, and the fact that many people will say that they cannot see any reasons for engaging in prostitution other than poverty, desperation or mental illness. Consequently, it seems plausible to think that there is a strand of thought in Canada about prostitution which sees prostitution as necessarily degrading. Let us call this perspective `Pious Puritanism.` For the remainder of this entry I will argue that the ideas underlying pious puritanism are valid, but that they imply a broader critique of commodification and wage labour itself.

Pious Puritanism suggests that prostitution is deeply degrading under any condition. This raises the question of why prostitution is degrading, One reason to think that prostitution is degrading is that it represents the infiltration of norms of economic activity into a sphere in which norms of romantic affection ought to dominate, and economic norms should be barred entry. Just as it would be absurd and degrading for someone to treat their romantic partner as someone who they exchange goods and services with on the basis of a binding commercial contract, so too it is absurd and degrading to sell sex to another. Underlying this thought process is the idea that our sexual and romantic capacities should not be rendered into commodities that can be traded for money. Let us call this objection to prostitution the romantic criticism.

One other reason why someone might object to prostitution in principle is that prostitution treats a person merely as a sexual object to be bought and paid for. The problem with this form of objectification is that it renders the sex trade worker into an instrument of another`s pleasure, to be used. Even though this form of objectification does not actively coerce the sex trade worker it fails to positively appreciate that the sex trade worker is more than somebody to be paid and used. Let us call this objection the sexual objectification criticism.

While I find both of these criticisms compelling they point beyond the target of prostitution. In the case of the romantic critique it might seem as though prostitution is unique in that it commodifies aspects of us that should not be commodified. But it seems equally degrading to commodify one`s character traits such as loyalty, leadership or amicability, and yet when people apply for jobs they typically have a list of traits on their resume that they intend to sell to their prospective employer in order to get a job. In this way those who apply for jobs and work in the mainstream post-industrial economy are not merely selling their labour, they are selling themselves. Consequently, just as the sexual aspect of persons should not be commodified, so too it seems that the virtues that people have should not be commodified. It seems deeply demeaning to have to sell traits that are fundamental to who you are in order to get a job. As a result, the romantic critique seems to point to powerful reasons to be suspicious of prostitution, but it also point to the fact that there are other problematic forms of commodification within post-industrial societies like Canada.

The sexual objectification critique also properly sheds light on some of the problematic aspects of prostitution, but it doing so it also points to a broader critique of wage labour. If there is a problem with failing to positively appreciate that sex trade workers are more than sexual objects, than isn`t it also problematic for employers to fail to properly appreciate that their employees are more than a mere paid resource with particular capacities? This latter case seems to be a case of objectification as much as the former case does, and thus it is hard to see why objectifying someone as a sexual object is problematic, while objectifying them as a technical IT resource for instance would not be. We tend to be more comfortable with the latter form of objectification as we actively participate in it, simply by calling someone for IT support, but that does not render it any less of a form of objectification unless we treat the IT worker as more than just a resource that we have to pay. Thus, it seems that the sexual objectification critique points to the fact that wage labour itself is problematic. Thus, it seems that the romantic critique and sexual objectification critique of prostitution actually point towards a broader critique of practises of commodification and wage labour.

If the two critiques elaborated above point towards a broader critique of commodification and wage labour this means that anyone who finds prostitution problematic for the reasons associated with these critiques should also find certain elements of the economic systems of post-industrial society deeply problematic. I am certainly someone who finds both prostitution and many elements of the economic systems of post-industrial societies problematic, but it seems that within our culture there is a general tendency to have disdain for prostitution, while ignoring the fact that many of the reasons behind people’s condemnation of prostitution point to a broader critique of commodification and wage labour. It is important for us to recognize that this perspective is deeply in tension, if not contradictory, and thus problematic.